just a thought
I think I’ve nailed down what bothers me about a lot of the defenses of the town hall protesters by, let’s say, more sophisticated, politically engaged and connected conservative pundits: I read, and all I can think is “this sounds like anthropology.” I was just reading a piece that someone linked to, from a smart professional politics and culture writer, and though he was attempting to defend the ways of Joe and Joanne Plumber to the world, it could not have demonstrated better how little he was like those people than if he had just written that down as a sentence in the piece. I think it should give us a little pause if we are talking about other Americans in a way that evokes Margaret Mead talking about a premodern tribe.
This kind of Real American rah-rahing that Robert Stacy McCain, et al. take part in often is usually done less crudely by more culturally liberal, reformist conservatives. But as the volume of these protesters grow louder– the more loudly these protesters insist that this is a defining moment of us vs. them– it becomes harder for culturally sophisticated conservatives to resist the pull of circling the wagons. They are angry because of what they see as an arrogant dismissal of the town hall protesters by liberals, and further they imagine all sorts of malign things about the people who are dismissive. Perhaps, in some instances, they’re right, although I have found the national conversation about the protesters remarkably restrained, considering how, yes, frenzied and incoherent many of the protesters are. A few conservative pundits seek to reduce all liberal critique of the protesters into insults of culture. That’s not fair, for most of us, and worse, in the commission of accusing liberals of reducing protesters to cultural cues, they are doing the exact same thing to the protesters themselves. These pundits respond to what they perceive as an illegitimate reduction to culture by standing every argument on the basis of culture. It’s exactly considering elements of culture above what people actually have to say and the opinions they hold that, I think, is offensive. This is why the (classic) liberal ideal of centering political disputes on the content of political expression, and not on identity, is so radical. It is egalitarian and uninterested in the concerns of social and cultural space.
And, God bless them, conservative pundits of all stripes just do not fall out of love with the idea that the country is at its heart and in its majority white, straight, Christian, rural and Republican. I don’t know how many elections we have to have where the shifting demographics of this country are clear before they will catch on. Will it really take until this country becomes a majority Hispanic nation before there penetrates the larger conservative mind the reality that this country is not made up solely of people just like the protesters? Why do they still think they can refer to “America” when they are really referring to one shrinking slice of our electorate? I didn’t get it in November; I don’t get it now.
I extend to the people at the town halls the respect of listening to what they have to say and taking it seriously, and it’s for that reason I dismiss them. Because to the extent that they have an argument at all, it is an empty one, with almost no coherent objections to proposed health care reforms, lots of shouting and sloganeering and posturing, and nothing that I would call a rational, constructive argument. I take it that sometimes the question is precisely about the division of people who are politically savvy and those who are not, but here again the wages of what it means to demonstrate respect to someone on an intellectual level are clear. Were I to suspend discrimination and endorse the facile narrative of the town hall protests as some new Jeffersonian revolution, I would be extending to those people the most profound disrespect I know, the disrespect that says that they are not intelligent, adult or sophisticated enough to endure my disapproval. I disagree with them. I find their arguments empty and their protests childish. Some of them, I genuinely fear, because they have demonstrated themselves so gripped by anger and so far from reality that real violence seems inevitable. Were our positions reversed, I would prefer this kind of considered dismissal over the soft bigotry of low expectations.
That kind of self-defeating “respect” is something some defenders of the protesters avoid. Many in the conservative media do not, and not just the more crude forms but those from some very sophisticated, very smart people. The town hall protesters may live to be dismissed by liberals, but they also live to be patronized by conservatives. When I read some conservative bloggers talk about Real America, I cringe, for the same reason I cringed recently when talking to an otherwise charming old lady who told me she loved “the inherent nobility” of black people. Like the old lady and her exoticism, they and their admiration sand off the particular human reality of the people they say they are admiring.